Australia 1770–1861 / Frontier Wars

Free entry

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Fed Square

Level 3, Indigenous Art

15 Mar 18 – 30 Sep 18

Colony: Frontier Wars explores the period of colonisation in Australia from 1788 onwards and its often devastating effects on First Peoples. The period, that to many, was the discovery of a ‘wondrous’ southern continent, was to others an invasion of homelands occupied for many millennia. This powerful exhibition reveals some of what Aboriginal people have experienced as a continuing consequence of colonisation, through works of art.

By bringing together different understandings of Australia’s shared history, this exhibition also offers a pathway towards recognition. Australia’s shared history is explored through the works of many Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists of consequence, including William Barak, Tommy McRae, J.W. Lindt, Arthur Boyd, Brook Andrew, Maree Clarke, Christian Thompson, Gordon Bennett, Julie Gough and Yhonnie Scarce. The exhibition features key works from the NGV Collection as well as significant loans.

Presented concurrently with Colony: Frontier Wars, Colony: Australia 1770–1861 offers a parallel experience of the colonisation of Australia.

Exhibition labels

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Colony: Frontier Wars

Aboriginal memorial

Since 1788 thousands of Aboriginal people have died as a consequence of British expansion. This forest of hollow logs made by Aboriginal artists across Arnhem Land, and of Pukumani poles by Tiwi artists of Melville and Bathurst islands, stands as a large memorial to those who died defending their Country in Australia’s Frontier Wars. The maintenance of customary mourning practices by male and female Aboriginal artists and their strength to remain on Country are acts of defiance. Aboriginal people today continue to assert their sovereignty through their lived relationship with the land and each other and remain connected to their ancestors through the continuation of cultural practices like these.

Terra Nullius

Australia was founded in 1788 as a British penal colony under the doctrine of terra nullius (nobody’s land), meaning the original inhabitants were not recognised as owners of the land, and the British therefore felt empowered to take possession of it. Colony: Frontier Wars examines the devastating consequences of Cook’s claiming of the eastern coast of Australia for Britain, which marked the beginning of a process in which Aboriginal people suffered huge losses. Lands and waterways were taken, burial grounds desecrated, languages silenced, cultural practices suppressed and families torn apart.

Colony: Frontier Wars reveals through historical and contemporary works of art the legacy of loss caused by British expansion, which endures for many in the form of social inequalities, inherited trauma and misdirected violence. Colony: Frontier Wars celebrates Aboriginal resistance and the resilience of culture and community
through art, and memorialises the trauma of the past by making space for First Peoples’ voices in the now.


From the 1850s onwards, Aboriginal people across
Australia were removed from their communities under various colonial policies and relocated to missions and government reserves. Having already lost their lands and waterways post European settlement, Aboriginal people faced policies of removal, implemented to assimilate Aboriginal people into settler society, and protect them from frontier violence.

In spite of the missionaries’ best intentions, for Aboriginal people life was sedentary, regimented and vastly different from that experienced on Country. Aboriginal people were prevented from speaking in their own languages, performing ceremonies and practising their culture. Many children attended mission school to learn about Christianity; separated from their families, they slept in dormitories and often worked long hours in gardens. The introduction of Aboriginal people to the Christian faith destabilised ancestral belief systems which had been passed down for millennia.


History has been indeterminably cruel to the Tasmanian Aboriginal people, yet they continue to thrive. Theirs is a history of survival, resistance and resilience against nearly insurmountable odds. Before British colonisation in 1803, there were an estimated 3000–15,000 Aboriginal people living in what the British intially called Van Diemen’s Land.

Today, returning to their traditional lands, remembering ancestors lost and reconnecting with culture and Country are forms of memorialisation and healing for Tasmanian Aboriginal people and forms the basis of these works of contemporary art.


Europeans began collecting Aboriginal material culture in the eighteenth century. Objects were traded and lent, sold, and on occasion lost. Those that survived were mostly catalogued in terms of who collected them, when and sometimes where. The result is a mass of poorly documented Aboriginal material culture, held across numerous collecting institutions, and rarely exhibited. Today, it seems unfathomable that information as important as an artist’s name could have seemed unimportant to collectors. The values and beliefs of those early collectors continue to have repercussions, because they have led to large gaps in our understanding of these
objects – gaps that have been filled with terms such as ‘maker unknown’.

When we encounter the term ‘unknown’ it is essential to remember that every ‘unknown’ artist was in fact ‘once known’. This installation of women’s and men’s cultural objects, comprising four woven baskets, two containers, two spears, seven spearthrowers, five clubs, three boomerangs, sixty-three shields and one stone axe, serves as a memorial to the makers whose names have been lost, and attests to the refusal of Aboriginal people
to disappear. These objects have been carefully placed to simulate a midden, in honour of their makers.


William Barak, the great artist and Wurundjeri leader, occupies a unique place in the history of Australian art. This true hero of Narrm (Melbourne), who experienced the imposition of colonisation and dispossession and witnessed immense social change in his lifetime, was a diplomat, deeply respected and revered by all who knew him, black and white. Barak lived at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, a farming community near Healesville, from 1863 until 1903, becoming an influential spokesman for the rights of his people and an important source of knowledge on Wurundjeri cultural lore.

Barak left an authoritative record of his culture in a corpus of fifty or so drawings, each an unmediated expression of his hand and unlike the work of any other artist – then or now. In unequivocal pictures, we observe the strength of his cultural belief and his masterful command of communicating this knowledge to others. The central preoccupation of Barak’s work is the business of ceremony – a powerful cultural memory for the artist, a precious record for his Wurundjeri descendants and an unqualified fascination for Europeans. People dancing, gathering together, disputing and occasionally fighting, hunting and respecting the food of the land, loom large in Barak’s vision.


In settling Australia, British colonisers changed the Australian landscape forever. They cut down trees, built roads and stock routes, and introduced animals that damaged the ecological balance of the environment. European settlers had a relationship with the land that differed fundamentally from Aboriginal custodianship of Country, which entailed ensuring the sustainability of the natural world.

In building cities and townships, bitumenising meeting places and developing mining and pastoral industries, many sacred sites and burial grounds were destroyed. These radical changes to the landscape meant that countless Aboriginal peoples lost access to their Country, as well as their sources of food and water. Many Aboriginal people have a symbiotic relationship with the land, and being on Country is a spiritual experience, making these changes to the landscape culturally devastating.